The Bruins certainly have their work cut out for them with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.
The B’s lost three out of four to the Leafs this season and dropped seven out of eight games vs. Toronto the past couple of years and clearly, it’s a divisional rival that has gotten the better of the Black and Gold in the recent past. Still, the regular season is one animal and the Stanley Cup playoffs are quite another for both teams with big, big plans this spring. The game will feature great coaching, exciting offense, Original Six history and an epic Game 7 moment from the 2013 playoffs between the two teams that everybody will be harkening back to for the next couple of weeks.
“[Toronto is] a quality hockey club. They play with a lot of speed, so we’ve got our work cut out for us from top to bottom,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “They’ve got depth, they’ve got scoring ability. It’s going to be a big challenge [because] they’re a quality hockey club.”
With Bruins/Leafs expected to be a tightly contested best-of-seven series, here’s a breakdown of how the two teams stack up against each other:
COACHING - EDGE: TORONTO
Bruce Cassidy has done an excellent job this season, certainly has the attention of his group and has posted a stellar 68-27-13 record since taking over for Claude Julien last season. In any other year where an expansion team in Vegas didn’t make NHL history, he’d be a shoo-in for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year. But the edge still goes to Mike Babcock, his folksy Saskatchewan accent and his Stanley Cup ring, his 150 career playoff victories and the reams of Stanley Cup postseason experience in his career. Babcock has played the mind games, he’s had personal relationships with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron that he can probably try to use to his advantage and he employs a system that’s tough to play against. This will be a challenge for Cassidy, but the good news is that he’s always been up for those.
FORWARDS - EDGE: TORONTO
While it’s certainly close, the Leafs get the edge based on the depth that they bring to the table. Boston has the three 30-goal scorers that are all playing together and Marchand, Bergeron and David Pastrnak were the best line in the NHL for the majority of the season. But the B’s didn’t have another 20-goal scorer behind that high-powered trio and the Leafs have their own 30-goal trio of Auston Matthews, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri along with three more 20-goal scorers in Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau and William Nylander, too. That’s at least two lines that are extremely dangerous and are going to truly push the B’s defense. Rick Nash could be an X-Factor here if he really gets it going with his power forward game, but it remains to be seen if he’ll do that.
DEFENSEMEN - EDGE: BOSTON
The Toronto defense is pretty average. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are pretty good puck-moving types, but Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey aren’t the types of D-men that are going to knock your socks off. They’ll be hard-pressed to completely contain Boston’s top line or slow down Boston’s top power-play unit once it gets cranked up. On the other side, Zdeno Chara is a minus player the past couple of seasons vs. Toronto and Torey Krug is a minus-7 the past two seasons vs. the Leafs. So, they’ll need to be much better than they have been in the regular season, but the feeling here is that they will be. Chara and Charlie McAvoy are better than anything the Leafs have on the back end and the fact the B’s are mostly healthy this postseason – aside from the loss of Brandon Carlo – is a big boon for them.
GOALTENDING: EDGE: BOSTON
The Tuukka Rask Boo Hoo Crew is going to love this one. Frederik Andersen is a perfectly fine goaltender and he’s actually been pretty good (a .922 save percentage in the last two seasons vs. Boston) against the Bruins over the last couple of seasons. But Tuukka Rask is on another level as a goalie, he should be the better goalie in the series and he’s got the better defense playing in front of him in the playoff series. This is literally why the Bruins pay him $7 million a year, so now it’s up to Rask to go out and show why he’s one of the elite guys in the league. We’ll know pretty early in the series if this is truly going to be an advantage for the Black and Gold, but it certainly looks like it should be at the outset.
SPECIAL TEAMS - EDGE: BOSTON
The Leafs have the second-ranked PP in the NHL, but the Bruins have the fourth-ranked PP in the league. So, they’re equally explosive on the man-advantage. The big difference here is on the penalty kill where the Bruins are consistently top-five in the NHL (they finished third in the league this season, killing 83.7 percent of PPs) with Chara as the best penalty killer in the league with his long reach and massive size/strength around the net. This means the Bruins should be able to break through with their power play much more often than Toronto will over the course of a seven-game series. Really, it often comes down to special teams and goaltending over the course of a series. The B’s top PP has been electric over the last six weeks and if that carries over into the postseason...watch out.
INTANGIBLES - EDGE: BOSTON
One of the biggest differences between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins comes down to the leadership and the on-ice experience in the postseason. The Leafs know full well about this after Kadri, Gardiner and van Riemsdyk saw the collapse against the Black and Gold in Game 7 of the 2013 playoffs and the interesting mix of talented youth and proven, grizzled core veterans has been a real strength for Boston. The Leafs have Patrick Marleau as one of their key older, leader-types and he was at the heart of some of the biggest underachieving teams in the NHL while with the San Jose Sharks. The Bruins have Chara, Marchand, David Krejci and Adam McQuaid as Stanley Cup champs and Bergeron as one of the biggest winners and best NHL team leaders of his generation. When the chips are down for either team, it’s the B’s that have the better chance of battling back in a series.
STAR POWER - EDGE: TORONTO
Toronto. Auston Matthews is the future face of the NHL. A No. 1 overall pick and franchise player who's already one of the best players in the NHL just two seasons into his career. Clearly, Bergeron and Brad Marchand are more established and more finished players at this stage of their veteran careers, but if there’s one player that could take over a playoff series with sheer star power, it’s the guy that scored four goals in his first-ever NHL game. That’s got to be one of the worries for the Bruins, though the B’s have two things going for them: Chara matches up fairly well with a bigger player such as Matthews (6-3, 216), as evidenced by his modest career numbers vs. the B’s (one goal, four assists in five games) and the Leafs actually lost the only game that Matthews played against Boston this season.
SERIES SUMMARY - BOSTON IN SEVEN
The Bruins will best the Leafs in seven games. This will be a close series with overtime games, plenty of one-goal decisions and two teams pretty similar in terms of skill, style of attack and overall philosophy. In the end, it’s going to come down to the Bruins being better able to hold down the Leafs offense and the Bruins getting after a no-name Toronto defense hoping to get by with Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Travis Dermott.